Tag Archives: architecture

Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age

Some thoughts on the exhibition at the Barbican.  Constructing Worlds is on the photography of architecture, and it does indeed excel in capturing the relationship between two dimensional pictures and architecture, how photographs can reveal not just a new vision of our built environment, but an aid to experiencing our vision of it differently. As a whole this  inspired me to go out into London and take pictures again, to see my city in terms of shapes and shadows, surfaces and depths. To pay attention to structures and the space that they create. It has been so long since I’ve just taken my camera out, and with a camera in hand you see the city in a very different way. The next day walking in Lambeth, I thought to myself of Lucien Hervé, with his studies of shadow and light. Staring at the estate on my corner it came in and out of phase, from blocks of space to details of material and lived-in-ness to blocks of space. Gave me chills. I like that form of seeing, but only in combination with other forms of seeing. Just as I would have liked this exhibition more if it had combined the western white male gaze with others, incorporating more diversity of not just subject but also of viewer. There were four women featured here, one Indian, one white South African and another born in Nigeria, and one Japanese photographer.

I am so tired of the ubiquity of this gaze that rests on the structures of privilege: who gets to become a ‘photographer’, who amongst those are considered an artist, who gets shown in galleries, who can earn their living this way if they need to. I didn’t really bother once going to exhibitions, because what do those people have to do with me? And then I would go because I realised that at their best they make me think and see new things, and I’d shrug off the uniform nature of the artists because that’s how the world is. Now I sometimes go (but sometimes I just don’t) and usually emerge thinking new things, but also a little upset.

Anyway, that critique aside I would still go again. In the Barbican’s own words:

Constructing Worlds brings together eighteen exceptional photographers from the 1930s to the present day who have changed the way we view architecture and perceive the world around us.

From the first skyscrapers in New York and decaying colonial structures in the Congo, to the glamorous suburban homes of post-war California, and the modern towers of Venezuela, we invite you on a global journey through 20th and 21st century architecture.

Featuring over 250 works, this exhibition highlights the power of photography to reveal hidden truths in our society.

And it did that, but again I ask, who gets to change the way ‘we’ view things? Those looking at photography in the Barbican aren’t generally the group I am imagining when the words ‘we’ leave my mouth. For example, the three public school youths clearly just there because a fairly stunning arty girl said she wanted to go. How much are they really challenging our view of society? I wonder.

But the photographs were wonderful. Just some notes about some of my thoughts on the artists in the order you find them in the exhibit, I definitely hope to follow up with more on their work at some point:

Thomas Struth: He set up his tripod in the middle of the street each time, and tried to create a set of pictures that removed the focus from composition, allowed for a ‘more scientific grid’. The best you can see here on his website, they are oddly compelling. Across time and space the pictures here gave you a sense of some of the differences between Chicago, NY, Berlin, Naples, Tokyo. Pyongyang, Rome, Lima, St Petersberg, Beijing, Geneva.

View of Exchange Place from Broadway, New York, 1934

Berenice Abbott: Oh man, these made me fall in love with NY all over again, and like Walker Evans, only exist as part of the New Deal programs to put artists to work. I love the New Deal, wish the US still had those programs in place because they opened up art for a little while. Of course, she’d been already been the proteget of Eugene Atget (considered the grandfather of photographic modernism? For further investigation) in Paris and brought back his archive to the US in 1929 before being hired by the Federal Art Project. This long thin amazing view between skyscrapers with people down below is one of my favourite pictures of the exhibit (so so few of these pictures contained people, as if spaces were pure, to be seen and aesthetically enjoyed as separate from being lived in). There was another of a man reading his paper with a cat which I loved, and a picture of the first model tenement house in NY with rows upon rows of washing. Extraordinary.

Walker Evans: I liked that he was included here because these were pictures of cities and towns of the South, and I liked the Barbican applying the term architecture to them — from steel mill towns to the ‘Negro’ section. There was a wonderful series of wooden frame churches, almost exactly alike and differentiated by only small decorative details and amount of peeling paint.

This was followed by Julius Schulman, a little Southern California modernism as the photographer for mostly L.A. architects of note and merit. The Stahl House for example, is stunning (but oh. my. god. when you go from black and white to orange and white in colour!). I liked this set up, with the case study home program, the set of magazine articles the pictures appeared in in glass cases in the middle. Of course, these pictures would go on to define the ideals of wealth and suburban living, and I wish I had had them for my thesis. Modern architecture. Women in the kitchen. Swimming pools. Refined parties with guests reclining on expensive furniture. Entirely white, as any self-respecting suburb was given the harassment ranging from eggs to bombs keeping non-whites out. But that’s my thesis. I just don’t think that part of ideal should be left unsaid.

Haute Cour à Chandigarh, © 1955, Lucien Hervé
Haute Cour à Chandigarh, © 1955, Lucien Hervé

I think Lucien Hervé impressed me most, at least his mastery of showing mass and space, shadow and light stuck with me. I am also fascinated by his relationship with Le Corbusier, their partnership which brought these two mediums together in a very different way than the other photographers. I’ll be coming back to Le Corbusier, his visions for society and the city, the visions he built in Europe but on such a larger scale in Chandigarh and Ahmedebad. I find them extraordinary. In many of these latter pictures (and I loved the  showing of the annotated contact prints) the human use of the space returns without losing the architectural sense of the space. The re-appropriations (to the extent possible) of these huge brutalist symbolic spaces of government by the poor I found inspiring to some extent, and very curious about the role of government, the functioning of government in this kind of space.

Ruscha’s photographs of LA parking lots were…no, I didn’t much like them. I did like the images of industrialisation by Bernd and Hilla Becher, the idea of industrial archeology. I loved an entire wall of the most amazing water towers. The collection from Stephen Shore was all right, looking at his website I actually feel that his work loses some of its impact just focusing on those that arguably deal with architecture. I love the moments, people, everydayness that he captures and the way that he captures them, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m from Arizona and that’s a lot like Texas. I did laugh with joy to see the wigwam motel though.

That’s the top floor, by then I was seriously losing steam, just as I am now. The bottom floor was more modern, more installation based, only a few pieces for each artist. Luisa Lambri’s interior didn’t really work for me, but the smudged iconic shapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto I liked. Luigi Ghirri‘s photographs were tiny and exquisite, I would have liked more. Hélène Binet and more wonderful use of darkness and light and describing architectural photography as a pas de deux between building and camera. The monumental and amazingly detailed photo of collective behaviour enclosed in space of Andreas Gursky. Bas Princen with an extraordinary view of garbage strewn across the complixities of slum rooftops in this place geared to living off of the recycling of waste. Guy Tillim walking through Patrice Lamumba’s dream in the Congo. That hurt my heart, but the pictures are incredible. Simon Norfolk’s pictures of war’s effect on architecture — both in terms of destruction and speculation. You should go just to see the wedding cake building.  Nadav Kandar, who combined people’s everyday lives as lived underneath and around the huge bridge across the Yangtze. And the best way to end? Iwan Baan, because I loved the subject. A huge flagship building in Caracas, never completed and then squatted, and these pictures show the world created there by its inhabitants. Such vibrant re-appropriations of space, they made me so happy, and their own views through glass-free ‘windows’ onto the incredible cityscape sat in my head alongside those of the staid Stahl house looking out over L.A.

Torre de David, Caracas, Venezuela, 2011 by Iwan Baan.
Torre de David, Caracas, Venezuela, 2011 by Iwan Baan.
stahlhouse
Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22, Julius Shulman

The photographs are wonderful. Go see it, or check them out where you can.

Featured photographers

  • Berenice Abbott
  • Iwan Baan
  • Bernd and Hilla Becher
  • Hélène Binet
  • Walker Evans
  • Luigi Ghirri
  • Andreas Gursky
  • Lucien Hervé
  • Nadav Kander
  • Luisa Lambri
  • Simon Norfolk
  • Bas Princen
  • Ed Ruscha
  • Stephen Shore
  • Julius Shulman
  • Thomas Struth
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto
  • Guy Tillim

Also includes the work of iconic architects

  • Le Corbusier
  • Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Minoru Yamasaki
  • Luis Barragán
  • Aldo Rossi
  • Pierre Koenig
  • Charles and Ray Eames
  • Daniel Libeskind

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William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, Pt. 1

detail_256_William_morris150(1955, 1976, 2011) E.P. Thompson, PM Press

A book this size (810 pages!) is always daunting to start, long to finish, but it feels like you’ve really accomplished something by the end of it. Of course there is no way to condense or summarise the contents. Morris was born in 1834 in Walthamstow, near Epping Forest, went to Cambridge, studied medieval history and wrote poetry. Ruskin was the great influence of that period and throughout Morris’ life, but he’s on my list of things to read so I won’t discuss him too much here. This is also the period he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, became introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, believed Rosetti when he said to paint was the thing, and so he painted. Romance was also the thing, romance and authenticity, and somehow Morris was given the nickname of Topsy which he never lost amongst his friends from these days. There was revolt of a kind in his life and art, but a revolt of what? Thompson pulls out key phrases:

‘Truth to Nature.’ ‘Stern facts.’ ‘Flight of little souls in bright flames.’ ‘Maisons damnees.’ ‘Mystery–the main thing required for the surprise of the imagination’ (54).

Morris writes:

When an artist has really a very keen sense of beauty, I venture to think that he can not literally represent an event that takes place in modern life. He must add something or other to qualify or soften the ugliness and sordidness of the surroundings of life in our generation (56).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Black chalk on paper, dated 1865, 31.5 x 34.5cm, Private collection
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Black chalk on paper, dated 1865, 31.5 x 34.5cm, Private collection

He was to meet his wife Jane Burden here in this circle, a model for Dante Rossetti and daughter of a stable worker. She’s someone I want to read more about — as in this tale as it is told, her last name is particularly apt for their relationship. E.P. Thompson isn’t the best on gender issues, and it is certainly clear that they were not very compatible together and in a rational world would have split, but there is little sense of her here apart from a woman firmly committed to her own comfort and distant from any of Morris interests. He seems to have fallen in love with the ideal that he wrote in his romances, the same ideal that Rossetti painted, all surface and yielding and mystery, no living breathing woman (for an interesting view on this from another model, see Will the Real Jane Morris Please Stand Up). They seemed to have come to an open-marriage arrangement over the years, Morris seems to have had a very practical and what I think of as a modern view of it — in a society where there can be no divorce. This is echoed in  views from his fiction, like News From Nowhere, and important in shaping his views on ideal gender roles and relationships under socialism. But it’s hard to tell what the reality was, Jane’s own biographies beckon. What is certain is that Rossetti remained very much in her life long after he and Morris ceased to agree on anything. The William Morris gallery has an exhibit devoted to her image and what they call Rossetti’s obsession with her until January 2015.

But meanwhile Morris was embarking on a revival of the decorative arts — and the relation of arts to society remained central to his thinking throughout his life. In my own ignorance, I associated his wonderful designs with the Victorian era — which of course they are — but were in fact part of a revolt against so much of what characterises the Victorian. I love the distinction between the superficialities of gothic style and feature employed by so many Victorian architects, and Morris own focus on process, the way in which medieval workers created and crafted and the materials and tools that they used. This would become the essence of Morris’ own craft. He consulted archives, interviewed old craftsmen, experimented with his own weaving, synthesised his own natural dyes. I’m much more fascinated by that stuff than Thompson was I’m afraid. I was surprised just how much of the book tries to come to grips with his poetry and prose instead. His poetry isn’t really stuff I like much, the book opens with a discussion of Keats as an influence — whose work I really don’t like either. But it’s a good reminder of how important his poetry continued to be, so much that Thompson writes that the weakness of his middle period ‘reveals much of the change of attitude from revolt to disillusion in his personal outlook during these years. And it marks a stage in the degeneration of the English Romantic movement’ (114). Harsh, but I am inclined to agree.

It was a slow movement to socialism, and he never left behind this love of the medieval past, the goodness of the country and the evil of the big city, the value of work and craftsmanship. Part of the journey was the foundation of ‘Anti-Scrape’, a society to protect and preserve old buildings from demolition or ‘restoration’ into something essentially new. Of course any work to put alternative values or aesthetics above profit or desire to make a show of wealth will bring you ‘directly into conflict with the property sanctions of capitalist society (231).’ I think a lot of things will do this, but the work around the preservation of ancient properties is also very tied up in conservatism, in the maintenance of the past, feudal, inequalities and oppressions that created these buildings. Ruskin, for example, writes

It is…no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings pf past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong, partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead still have their right to them…What we have ourselves built we are at liberty to throw down, but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death… (234 – from the Seven Lamps of Architecture)

But if we do not have the right, than who? How does society grow, improve, change? This seems a bit mad, pushing to an extreme this veneration for what has come before. I much prefer Morris’s approach, and how he believed that ancient architecture:

bears witness to the development of man’s ideas, to the continuity of history, and, so doing, affords never-ceasing instruction, nay education, to the passing generations, not only telling us what were the aspirations of men passed away, but also what he may hope for in the time to come (236).

In the end Morris becomes an important voice for socialism, Thompson writes of it as almost beginning a new life at the age of 50. He leaves the disillusionment and depression behind to enter wholeheartedly into this cause he believes can transform the world. Thompson writes:

The Socialist propaganda brought to such people as these exactly what it had brought to William Morris–hope. Wherever the aspirations for life stirred among the workers–the clear-headed hatred of capitalism, the thirst for knowledge, beauty and fellowship–the Socialist converts might be won (300).

His commitment to it was as total as it had been to relearning ancient weaving techniques, and I am full of admiration at his hating public speaking and yet forcing himself too it, knowing that his fame would bring people and that would be his greatest contribution to the movement. George Bernard Shaw wrote:

He had escaped middle age, passing quite suddenly from a circle of artistic revolutionists, mostly university men gone Agnostic or Bohemian or both, who knew all about him and saw him as much younger and less important than he really was, into a proletarian movement in which, so far as he was known at all, he was venerated as an Elder…Once or twice some tactless ghost from his past wandered into the Socialist world and spoke of him and even to him as Topsy…. (302)

They were quickly sent on their way. These were the days of speeches and more speeches, the tours by key left figures talking up how to change the world in homes and halls and on street corners. They were also days of meeting in pubs and over pubs and next to pubs, the old guard from the Chartists and the 1848 uprisings and workingman’s international still around linking past to present (but cantankerously sometimes), the anarchists infiltrated by agents provocateurs, the Paris Commune, liberals disillusioned with Gladstone, the ‘Land Question’ the question of the 1870s and 1880s (with the rise of Henry George and the Irish Land League),  though nationalism of land was not specifically a socialist demand (way-hey!), as Thompson argues it distracted from robbery of the people through land as opposed to robbery through ownership of the means of production.  But Socialism was on the rise, 1881 saw the rise of the Labour Emancipation League under Joseph Lane. H.M. Hyndman had read Capital by 1880, introduced himself to Marx, and formed the Democratic Federation in 1881 as well. I like that Thompson notes that despite their belief in socialism, many middle class socialists/marxists still feared the proletariat and the ‘mob’ more than loved them — Hyndman believed their revolution was simply inevitable ‘whether we like it or not’ (294). Nor for Hyndman did his views of socialism conflict with belief in Empire, the strength of Anglo-Saxon blood, or the ‘presentation of the Colonies as the special heritage of the English working-class’ (293).

William Morris on the other hand, spoke out against those who have ‘ruined India, starved and gagged Ireland, and tortured Egypt…’ (326). This was just one of the issues that would work to fracture and split the new Socialist movement in a long and complicated and more than frustrating history with which I shall come to grips a little more in part 2. Eleanor Marx’s biography deals with it, as does the history of the Labour Party I’m reading at the moment…hopefully with all of them together and whatever else the future holds I can get a more clear idea of what is important to remember about this period, because I’ve had more than enough fracture and in-fighting in today’s left politics to last me a lifetime… my eyes glazed over at times I confess.

[Part 2 can be found here]

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Southwark Cathedral Contradictions

I can’t quite grasp the relationship between the glorious monsters on the outside and the glorious light and space and soaring of the inside

And I still cannot quite comprehend how stone can take this character of massive weightlessness, how anything so heavy and solid can delicately soar and continually unfold into mystery

This narrow Norman arch has stood here here supporting the roof for 800 years. Of course, it was once a wood roof, probably very similar to that of Westminster Hall  with its capitals of strange creatures and frightening angels…perhaps resolving some of the contradictions, but raising others. I want to know their stories, but fear them to be long gone. And while I love stumbling across the green man, I do not buy much of the crap written about him. So it is all wonder and mystery, this combination of such immense human skill, love, and imagination

Southwark Cathedral stands at the lowest point of the Thames, the old ford and today’s Tower Bridge, for long the only entrance to the City of London. You can see the remains of the Roman road alongside the cathedral, along with a statue of an ancient hunter god. There has been a church here since at least 606 AD…

[And the priests and staff inside are incredibly friendly and informative without being overwhelmingly so. And the incredible Burough Market is immediately next door.]

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Living Architecture: The Bonaventure Hotel

If you sit very still and stare at downtown L.A. from the window of the Bonaventure Hotel’s cocktail lounge, this is what you will see:

The slowly revolving floor shifts the gorgeous view before your eyes. But apart from saving up for the drinks, how do you get here?

It’s public of course, but that does not make it easy to find. There are three entrances to the Bonventure, but none of them are your traditional grand salon entrance. And two of them are from those secret sky bridges of LA, the one we took joins the hotel to Hope Street past the YMCA. You enter what feels like a back door onto the fifth floor of a dark and massive tower with spiraling stairs and pillars, and street signs to direct you to where you want to go:

Not all elevators go to the top you see, neither do the escalators. In fact, I don’t think there were any escalators on this floor. You have to find the red elevator, the red one! (The vertiginous ride in the glass elevator up the outside of the building for 35 floors and all of Central LA laid out beneath you? Highly recommended.) Any other colour and you will be lost in this vast echoing space.

It has its own stores, its own running water far far down below, it even has its own track and exercise machines where you can sweat in full view.

Built by John Portman and opened in 1976, it is an iconic building. And wandering through it, I couldn’t help but think of Frederic Jameson’s comments in an essay called Postmodernism and Consumer Society. He writes that the Bonventure has no main entry because it does not wish to be part of the city, it wishes to replace it. That it puts you into such a vast space so full of stuff you can no longer get a measure of just how big it is, you lose just how much emptiness is enclosed by these enormous walls of glass. The building toys with your perspective.

He writes that this is a space that takes vengeance on those walking through it, one that forces you to lose your bearings. It transcends us as human beings, and makes it impossible for us to find ourselves within such a context.

Me? I thought it an incredible building, but it did make me feel very small, very lost, very much in desire of a nice drink. So I set off in search of the red elevator, and thought about architecture and its impacts on how we live and see ourselves in the world. And this one almost cathedral-like in how it humbles you, God replaced by wealth, retail, and facilities for showing off while working out…

[also posted at www.drpop.com]

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Thoughts on the Chicago Skyline

Downtown Chicago is all planes and angles, contrasts in brick and stone, glass and steel. It is full of amazing reflections in glass.

You see it at one level from the street, and another entirely from the El train, and from both it is visually spectacular. Your fingers itch for your camera, every step brings a shift in the lines, and changes the seen and the unseen.

I had half a day on Monday after a morning meeting, so I thought I’d do the Architectural Boat Tour, 90 minutes along the river and almost all the pictures a lustful heart could ask for…as the river goes round the loop and not through it.

But I confess my extreme love for these great buildings piled one on top of the other sits miserably with my love of social and environmental justice. They are contradictions impossible to overcome. I wonder if perhaps I love them (and hate them) for their colossal and unbelievable arrogance, because it is combined with such extraordinary technical and engineering skill. I love the fact that we have figured out how to build such things, hurling metal and glass up to the sky. I suppose we never stopped to ask whether we should. And the wealth required to build such buildings…where does it come from? Chicago is as much a city of immense poverty as it is a city of beauty. And that is where you find the answer. My question is whether we could build such things without exploitation, and in a way that sits happily on the earth.

On the tour, the guide was full of information on architectural styles and the men who created them, the requirements of building something like the Sears tower, the Trump tower, and towers x, y, and z. Everything was entirely divorced from the city or the people who live in it with the exception of a single architect, Bertrand Goldberg. He designed Marina City, which I love.

I have always loved round buildings. But the guide explained that he also tried to design buildings to create community, to encourage contact between neighbors, to provide immediate access to life’s amenities. Another of his buildings is River City

These buildings are all mixed use, with stores, child care, and access to a marina beneath. The balconies  are close together to bring neighbors together. They have beautiful public spaces. He believed density was a good thing, for community, for creativity, for life.

And so I looked him up. And I’m not sure what I think of him, I certainly disagree with much of what he says, but he makes me think. He wrote this of Marina City:

More importantly, in the Marina City forms. I made it possible for people to participate in community formation. Both in the use of space and in the form of space I discovered that behavior can be influenced by the shape of space. The faceless anonymity of the corporate box which we had used for the buildings for our government, our health, our education, our business and our living, I discovered could be replaced more effectively by a new development of architectural structure and forms that supported its use by people. We could have both architecture and humanism just as we had begun to do 200 years before in the social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

I love this recognition of the influence of space on the individual and community, and the revolutionary idea that architecture should be for the people and how they will live within it. That it affects how our society lives and grows. He’s not the only one of course, but one of the few. Yet it is a typical liberalism, looking backward to some better time, and only as worthy as it can be without questioning a terribly unjust world. He wrote another speech that offers an interesting reflection on the thoughts above called Rich is Right…exposing all of the contradictions involved in his thinking.

America is rich, America is right. Architects have always worked for the rich. We are now also working for the right.

Ah, if only that were true. Are the rich ever right? I don’t really think so. Our homeless population and slum housing certainly proves otherwise. But it is true that architects have always worked for the rich. I do like such frank admissions. But that leads to the conclusion that the 90% of Americans who are not rich just have to hope that those 10% of quixotic and self-absorbed rich people at some point get it right, no? That seems to require a lot of faith that history has never ever justified.

He goes on, extraordinarily enough, to quote Albert Speer, architect of Hitler. I read Speer’s autobiography some years ago and found it fascinating. He did not just build buildings, he created drama and spectacle, he cemented the image of ultimate power in the minds of the observer. Whenever you see Hitler speaking on a stage with the colossal architecture, the huge backdrops of red banners and striking black swastikas, the eagles, the torches… Speer designed all of that.

Albert Speer- Hitler’s state architect said: “We must learn to master technology and its potential by political means.” In contrast, modern architects of the 19th century all saw architecture as a reform mechanism for politics: that is, for helping solve social problems rooted in urban life and community needs, and for devising improved ways for people to work and learn and grow together.

It seems to me that my Chicago  boat tour proved Speer’s point, that architecture reflects the landscape of political power, and it has been mastered by the Trumps of the world. It is a skyline of corporations, not of government, ideals, or community spaces. Bertrand was alone there in thinking about these things, his buildings stand out because of it.

The tour takes you down the river again almost to the mouth of Lake Michigan. On your left is an urban renewal area. The words urban renewal hurt my soul, always. They usually mean the wholesale clearance of earlier communities, older buildings, of people of color and immigrants and all those who did not master power, who lived lives of poverty and hard work. My people. Urban renewal has been translated into a coastline full of high rise condos. On your right is another urban renewal area. It is also full of high rise condos. You can see down the coastline, more and more and more high rise condos. I didn’t particularly care to hear about the architects.

And they are busy building luxury residences for people who don’t exist. Home sales in Chicago’s metropolitan area are down 27.5% from April 2008, and unemployment is up to 10.1% according to the Illinois Association of Realtors. And they have somehow decided that these condos count as affordable housing and are asking for help:

David Hanna, president of the Chicago Association of REALTORS®. “The city of Chicago condominium sales numbers continue to reflect a critical need for governmental agencies to review the growing disparity in the ability to finance a condominium purchase in the city. This affordable housing will become unaffordable and unattainable to many qualified first-time homebuyers in the city of Chicago unless existing federal guidelines, which do not take into account nuances of the local market, are modified.”

If they did build affordable condos, I’m sure they wouldn’t be having quite so much trouble…I like to imagine what our cities would look like if they were built for all of the city’s people. Because, I do agree with this final quote from Bertrand Goldberg:

Are cities in our blood?

Are cities the natural forms of shelter which men build for themselves? Like the spider his web, or the oyster his shell? The answer to this is uncertain, but I believe it to be – yea.

I love the city.

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LA’s floating islands

Wealth in LA floats. We are not just segregated from north to south and east to west, but above and below. And I suppose I knew about the aerial isle that was once Bunker Hill, but I’d never really walked it, and until you walk you don’t really know a place. At 4th and Hope you are high up above LA, and all traces of the old Victorian neighborhood once there were completely bulldozed and destroyed several decades ago. And there followed some truly grim decades in terms of block architecture, and a planning model designed to keep public space as the exclusive right of the right people. So it is a modern wonderland of concrete and plazas leading to car garages and sleek, expensive men and women. There are a couple of skyscrapers built on it, their lights serve as the stars and I’ll not deny a strange beauty to them…there are some expensive shops and restaurants, but they all look like upscale chains. It’s that particularly L.A. thing I think, where everything is relatively new, sanitized, familiar, safe. People here trade what is real and true for a secure and enhanced façade every time, just look at sunset strip with its fake western bar, it’s fake Irish pub. Look at people themselves. And this place is made for cars, you have to climb a very steep hill to get here, and it isn’t the easiest thing on foot. I’m sure that’s quite deliberate. The right sort of person doesn’t walk in this city. I passed Gehry’s Disney hall, it’s on the edge of this as is MOCA. Wealth’s claim on high culture.

Usually I go beneath this place, through the terminator tunnel with its shiny white tiles reflecting the light when they are not falling off the walls, and the homeless sleeping along the sidewalk. I like it better underneath.  The higher you go in LA, the richer it invariably gets. From crack in Hollywood to cocaine in the Hollywood Hills and so it goes everywhere…even Echo Park has had its bastions of wealth up on top of everything, and now of course it is gentrifying at the speed of light, and from top down.

These things make me angry, so I’m glad the YMCA is still there, giving people one last reason to democratize space. I was walking because I forgot a clean shirt to change into after workout, sauna and steam, and couldn’t face jumping on a standing room only bus full of people going home from work. Especially since I was going home TO work. Happy Friday to me. But I haven’t really been home for so long, so I’m still enjoying it.

LA Adventures

They’re winding down…a month to go exactly, and I have never loved LA as much as now when I am about to leave it…it is an amazing city. I only have 4 weekends left before I leave, and they are full to overflowing with plans already…This is more of a journal entry for me to look over when I’m nostalgic in Sctland, so apologies…yesterday spent the day with meo and her unborn, haven’t seen her in ages! We went out to brunch and then walked about Silverlake a bit, went to Secret Headquarters, the new comic book store and it’s great, I got Love and Rockets which was madness because i am supposed to be getting rid of all of my material possessions, but i swear i am going to read it on the plane. I also realized that a few blogs ago I stated that men only look good in boxers…the Tomatoes episode, a classic LA moment…and I have to now partially reverse this sweeping statement and say that to ME, men only look good in boxers. Apperently, to other men, men look much better in small colourful briefs or thongs…this thought gives me a shudder, but as proof I offer the following view into Rough Trade:

We wandered on in, it’s quite tame in the front room, you can see the hard core bondage stuff peeking flirtily from the back, and there’s an upstairs as well, but meo wasn’t feeling like stairs so we scarpered. We also found a great T-shirt shop, and I bought one featuring “chelvis,” or che crossed with elvis, it’s ridiculous…

We then headed over to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, i cannot believe in all my years here I had never gone the 20 minutes down sunset to see it. It’s quite beautiful

though they would allow no photos inside the bastards. I even went to look for a picture to scan of the inside because it is quite glorious but actually found jack all on the internet and I realized my big art books are almost all sold…hooray for that! It was beautiful, if a bit cold, and sadly I discovered that Mr. Wright did not understand plumbing or allowing for rain so apparently most of his 28 roofs leaked…anyways, it’s highly recommended in spite of a slightly annoying tour guide. The views over LA were incredible as well, and since it’s been so windy the sky was incredibly clear, and you realize what a difference the absence of smog can make in your life…

Saw Pan’s Labyrinth, everyone must see it, and on the big screen if at all possible, it is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. With the possible exception of you Chris, if you’re reading this, given it is a bit of a fairytale. Still, it’s an anti fairy tale really, and the previews are crap as it is only partly goth fantasy and the other half you might not be able to resist – the Spanish civil war and the splendid facsist step-father. It’s all about disobediance and doing what is right, has incredible characters with actors to match, and I loved it. I believe i will even buy the dvd as I think it requires a couple more viewings. I have also have discovered I have a bit of a crush on Dave White who writes reviews for movie.com; here’s what he says: “What’s the Deal? Do not, I repeat, do not take kids to this movie unless you’re somehow convinced of their innate worldliness, knowledge of the Spanish Civil War and its dour aftermath and ability to withstand nightmare-inducing horror. Because more than anything, this is a frightening, brutal adult fairy tale that really takes its cues from old-school fairy tales in which something evil never fails to befall hapless innocents. It’s violent, creepy and unlike anything you’ve seen in a while. It’s also insanely imaginative and beautiful. An awesome movie, but not for little kids. At all…And Another Thing: I want to send writer/director Guillermo Del Toro a thank-you note for not being afraid to go down the darkest, most heartbreaking path toward his movie’s ending. Anyone have his address? I might send some chocolates, too.” Alright, so this isn’t the funniest review, a good one was blood diamond, which I was also contemplating: “What’s the Deal? It was high time Hollywood stopped trying to make people care about genocide in Africa with stuff like Hotel Rwanda and simply embraced its natural impulse to exploit. Now it’s just a really exciting and gory backdrop for a chase movie about a hot smuggler chasing diamonds who then falls for sexy American journalist Connelly.

Who Hates Jennifer Connelly? My guess is that it’s director Edward Zwick. I have no proof of this, mind you, other than the little problem of her performance being world-class awful. It’s the kind of sore thumb that makes you think careful editing and a grudge was involved.

When to Check Out: The last scene, when the guy from 7th Heaven is talking and the diamond industry gets to tell you that they do not condone the sort of “conflict diamonds” the whole movie is about. Then there’s uplifting dumbness with Hounsou. If you just get up and go, you’ll save yourself from a big inappropriate laugh in a crowded theater.”

he’s brilliant, I shall be reading all of his reviews from now on.

Today, chinatown with Ruel, haven’t seen him in ages either. We had dim sum at the Empress Pavilion, and it is the best in town…this morning’s feast was worth every second of the hour wait to get a table. Here’s a view of the restaurant, it is huge and packed to overflowing so that the poor servers with their carts full of hot steaming deliciousness can hardly move around…you really have no idea what you’re getting because English is in short supply, but you can see it…we passed on the tentacled thingie that looked somewhat alive, and the shark fin was a surprise but not bad at all if a little chewy.

Go here too if you’re ever in town. 15 pounds heavier than before, we stumbled out the door to get coffee and dessert (managed that somehow without unbuttoning my trousers), and amble around chinatown, saw groups of men standing around playing a complicated game involving concentric circles and white game pieces, a woman playing the something something, I’m really betraying my ignorance today, but the stringed instrument she was playing was heartbreakingly beautiful, a nine year old Mongolian contortionist who did amazing things that made my stomach turn a bit, as you can see:

a woman who could balance absolutely anything…she had 3 raw eggs balanced on a stick on her nose and made it look remarkably easy…I might try it myself later, though I’d be happy with just balancing an egg on an egg in the palm of my hand. Apparently almost no one else can do this 3 egg balancing act, and I quite believe it.

I shall miss this place just a bit I think.

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Low Culture and High Culture

About 5 years ago my friend Jeronimo took me to this restaurant in the depths of South Central, you could hardly call it a restaurant, it was like a trip to El Salvador…the way it looked, the way that it smelled…it took me back I must say. It’s all outdoors behind a white building that looks like a hole in the wall and closed to the public, with huge grills where they cook mojarras (grilled fish), and pupusas, and you eat at these long tables under plastic tarps, and on the walls are cheap decorations and towels with pictures of salvadoran scenes. They serve you on paper plates covered with foil, curtido and salsa on the side. I must say, the salsa could use a heavy dose of chile – that’s not the Salvadoran way however, and I can respect that…today I found it again without even looking! Like finding an old friend, Jose took me this time, it’s called Don Lencho’s and it’s on 61st and Normandie, and still delicious! I decided against the fish, for while delicious, its fragrance remains with you for the rest of the day, so had pupusas de frijol y queso, and I ate them with my fingers and they were soooooo good! I should have gotten Jose to take a picture before I ate them, because the remnants of a good meal are never classy, but here is Don Lenchos in all of it’s splendour!


The red towel behind me with the ladies making pupusas is seen everywhere in El Salvador and actually something I own, it was a gift from one of my old clients and therefore one of my prized possessions since it was someone I loved and respected very much…I helped Juan with his asylum case, but when his father died we tried to get a visa so he could return for the funeral. We did not succeed and that I still feel was one of the most unjust things in the entire world, for Juan’s father…imagine – one of his sons was tortured and killed, the other son tortured and fled and he never saw him again…and all they had done was teach cathechism and literacy. Juan just left because his father dying without saying goodbye…it f*&ed him up a little, he came back with a coyote and I was so afraid he wouldn’t make it back…and he still found time to buy me a gift. Anyways, finding this place again was enough to make my day, I love it!

This evening after work I went to the Central Library to see Alain de Botton speak on his new book Architecture of Happiness…it was very highbrow and very nice, and I have to say, I enjoy hearing Oscar Wilde and Stendhal quoted, I enjoy discussions of architecture, and I enjoy wondering why exactly it is that the world is not more beautiful, and how important architecture really is, and how my surroundings affect my thoughts and aspirations…I’m a bit of an architecture enthusiast but politically feel people should come first, so I’m always a bit torn by beautiful, and expensive, buildings. I enjoyed laughing at pictures of aesthetes who wandered the streets with large sunflowers so as not to see the horror, who care more about the colour of the wallpaper than the people who put it up…and still must admit that I have my aesthetic side that cringes at what people decorate their homes with, though I do not allow even those horrible plaster cupids with gilding on their silly wings to affect my love for people. I even enjoyed the older eccentric woman, who twice whispered quite loudly “stop talking” when the other guy was speaking, though technically it was a dialogue between Alain and Christopher ? who writes the architecture column for the Times. I suppose she’s old, time is ticking and she just wanted to get onto the Q&A section…

Speaking of architeture, I bought tickets today for the LA Philharmonic which set me back a bit and though painful, will hopefully be worth every penny. I’m treating my parents to a concert in Gehry’s Disney Hall on Sunday…My first time inside and I’m pretty excited about seeing it and hearing the accoustics, will be a good weekend I think!

The glorious Alhambra, Spain

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